4 October 2021

Not-so-plain written: Can we infuse science writing with creative literacy?

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By: Emily Mercer

Sketch by Matilde Jacobson, a Biology and Public Health student at the University of New Mexico. You can find more of her art on her Instagram.

This week I started a new science research position which is short for: this week I plodded through dozens of scientific papers that are denser-than-osmium (yeah, Google just told me that’s the densest element) in a near Herculean effort to inaugurate myself to the niche world of my new research project. 

Most information transmission among scientists comes in the form of written publications, and a science paper’s clout is too often granted through its tenacious use of a lexicon only understood by other experts in the field. Put this paper in front of a less-than-expert (me), and I’m left picking through sentences word by word trying my darndest to glean some sort of meaning out of it all. It’s not only exhausting, but frankly, it’s pretty boring. So alas, I’ve learned to take the reading of science publications in very small doses; brain breaks are key. Sometimes during such breaks, I even pick up the book patiently resting on my nightstand and read a few pages for pleasure in the between pages of brain torture. 

All of this leads me to ask: Why must there exist such a divergence between reading for pleasure and reading for science? As I sit here during my hourly science reading hiatus, I wonder if closing the communication gap between academia and the general audience has as much to do with “dumbing down” scientific language as it has to do with spicing it the heck up. I wonder if we can color-in our paragraphs of data with a bit more storytelling pizazz, a bit more word art (no, I don’t mean the outdated Microsoft tool, but rather the art of using and arranging words with more flavor, more intention). Can we science write with imagination so we can science read for pleasure? Perhaps if we brew a little creative literacy into the bland, monotonous patterns of science papers, we can better catch the interest of experts and non-experts alike. Perhaps we can cast complex ideas and discoveries a little further.

-Emily Mercer is a Student Researcher at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, CO.